Heat Check CBB’s Lukas Harkins analyzes 10 teams that need to step up in nonconference play to protect their bracketology futures.
The NCAA Tournament selection committee does not (often) selectively analyze a team’s resume. Every game counts from the opening tip in November through the final buzzer in the conference tournament. Teams that take advantage of their nonconference schedules have a leg up in bracketology selection and seeding in March.
The value of nonconference games differs based on each team’s expectations as well. Mid-majors oftentimes lack the resume-building opportunities within their conference schedules and need to take advantage of high-quality games in the early going. The nonconference portion of the schedule is where teams can make strides towards at-large contention.
High-majors have more opportunities in conference play for top-tier wins. However, teams like Alabama and North Carolina, for instance, could use their loaded opening couple of months to propel themselves into top-4 seed territory.
Potential bubble high-major teams can build goodwill with the committee with some early quality wins as well. Those aren’t forgotten in March even if a team experiences late-season struggles. We have seen teams in the past (looking at you, 2018 Arizona State) that have carried strong nonconference performances to at-large bids.
There are teams across the country that have filled their first two months with tough matchups. With that in mind, below are 10 teams worth monitoring in the early portion of the season due to how much their nonconference performances may impact their bracketology futures.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama enters this season as a nationally ranked team with lofty expectations. As a result, its NCAA Tournament bid status likely won’t be in question. With that said, though, the Crimson Tide’s difficult nonconference slate positions the Tide to build a resume worthy of landing a top-4 seed. Head coach Nate Oats already has his team off to a great start with a dominant victory over a capable Louisiana Tech team — an under-the-radar nonconference victory with plenty more to come.
Alabama faces South Dakota State on Friday and the upcoming ESPN Events Invitational offers strong opportunities as well. The Tide will face at least Iona and one of Belmont or Drake at the event. If it plays out as planned, the Tide may face Kansas in the championship game as well.
Some of those matchups might look like tune-up bracketology opportunities in the grand scheme of things. The Tide tip off against Gonzaga, Houston and Memphis in three consecutive games from Dec. 4-14 with only the Houston game at home. Alabama also faces Colorado State in its last nonconference game before SEC games begin.
Don’t forget: Baylor, the defending national champions, come to town Jan. 29 in the midseason Big 12/SEC Challenge.
Colorado State Rams
Colorado State is another team that has already kicked off a difficult nonconference schedule with a big win. The Rams put up a whopping 109 points on Oral Roberts in a dominant performance on opening night. While that might be an overinflated victory for now due to ORU’s lingering Cinderella status, it should still be a respectable win on the resume. The Rams will be favorited in their next two games before entering the Paradise Jam, which could pit CSU against the likes of Creighton or Colorado.
Head coach Niko Medved’s team will face Saint Mary’s (home), Mississippi State (neutral) and Alabama (neutral) within a four-game span from Dec. 4-21. The Rams will be an elite offensive team led by David Roddy, Isaiah Stevens and John Tonje this season. Their status on that end of the floor will keep them in contention not only for the Mountain West title but also for an at-large bid.
Being able to accomplish the latter could come back to how well they perform during that four-game stretch, which also includes a neutral-site game against Tulsa.
Ohio reached the NCAA Tournament last season but did so via the automatic bid after finishing fifth in the regular-season MAC standings. The Bobcats then lost star player Jason Preston to the NBA in the offseason. Yet, head coach Jeff Boals’ team isn’t going anywhere this year, which was evident in their season-opening, 12-point victory over Belmont. That victory will serve as a resume-builder that should improve throughout the year as the Bruins are poised to dominate the OVC.
Ohio will face the Horizon League favorite, Cleveland State, in its next game. It will be another strong mid-major vs. mid-major opportunity — playing on the road will improve its bracketing value as well — while two battles with high-majors loom on the horizon. The Bobcats will travel to face Kentucky (Nov. 19) and LSU (Dec. 1) on the road during their nonconference slate. A home matchup with Marshall on Dec. 15 is a sneaky opportunity as well.
Mark Sears is a superb sophomore and is surrounded by much of the same supporting cast that Preston thrived alongside a year ago. Ben Roderick, Ben Vander Plas and Lunden McDay are all significant pieces who averaged double-figure points per game last year. Jason Carter is also back in Athens after a stint at Xavier. There is a lot to like here and taking advantage of the nonconference slate could ignite at-large bracketology conversation.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Hubert Davis did not exactly set himself up with an easy road for his first season as North Carolina’s head coach. The Tar Heels’ quest to return to national title contention begins with some difficult matchups. There are several tune-up games in the mix but UNC will take center stage with four “Game of the Night” quality matchups:
- vs. Purdue in Uncasville, Conn. at the Hall of Fame Tipoff (Nov. 20)
- vs. Villanova OR Tennessee at the Hall of Fame Tipoff (Nov. 21)
- vs. Michigan at home (Dec. 1)
- vs. UCLA in Las Vegas at the CBS Sports Classic (Dec. 18th)
Three of those matchups are already guaranteed to be against preseason top-10 teams while both Villanova and Tennessee will also take on UNC as ranked opponents barring unexpected upsets.
The Tar Heels will likely enter each matchup as the underdog; being able to steal two or three victories would go a long way in propelling them up the bracketology ranks. It’s unorthodox for a North Carolina team to have to prove it belongs among the nation’s best but that is the case this season in the post-Roy Williams era. There are bracketology opportunities abound for Davis to push his team into the limelight.
Seton Hall Pirates
Seton Hall was picked to finish fifth in the Big East this season, which likely projects them as an NCAA Tournament team but far from a bracketology lock. Replacing star Sandro Mamukelashvili is the biggest question mark in South Orange that holds back expectations. However, the Pirates’ nonconference schedule sets them up to prove that they belong higher in the national rankings. Head coach Kevin Willard has his team poised to face some big challenges.
Seton Hall will face Ivy League favorite Yale in its next game followed by consecutive Big Ten matchups. The Pirates are matched up with Michigan on the road for the Gavitt Games and then challenge Ohio State in the first round of the Fort Myers Tip-Off before meeting Cal or Florida in the second round to round out a huge November slate.
This group also preps for the Big East three straight pivotal games in December. Home contests against Texas and Rutgers headline this portion of the schedule, while their final matchup before conference play comes against MAAC favorite Iona.
San Diego State Aztecs
San Diego State is, perhaps surprisingly, not the preseason favorite to win the Mountain West this year. However, the Aztecs are expected to be in the mix for an at-large bid and their third straight NCAA Tournament appearance, including 2020. SDSU can put itself in a strong position to do exactly that with a challenging nonconference schedule approaching.
Head coach Brian Dutcher’s team started their schedule with a solid win over UC Riverside but challenging opponents are on the horizon.
SDSU will face BYU on the road on Friday night and follow it up by returning home to face Arizona State. The Aztecs’ pre-conference schedule also features the Wooden Legacy (Georgetown is the first-round opponent), traveling to face Michigan on the road, and facing fellow Big Dance hopeful Saint Mary’s in Phoenix.
Virginia Tech Hokies
I’m in the camp that Virginia Tech is one of the most underrated preseason teams in the country. The Hokies were deserving of a spot in the Top 25 heading into the year. Opinions aside, though, they will have plenty of opportunities against quality nonconference competition. The Hokies begin their year with a few winnable games but their road matchup against Navy perhaps carries more weight now that the Midshipmen have already taken down nationally ranked Virginia.
Virginia Tech’s toughest stretch of schedule begins with the NIT Season Tip-Off. The Hokes will face Memphis on the first night of the event before challenging either Xavier or Iowa State in the second round. Head coach Mike Young also has meetings with Maryland (away), Dayton (away) and Saint Bonaventure (neutral) all scheduled prior to fully diving into ACC play.
Virginia Tech started 6-0 in Young’s first season at the helm and 8-1 last year. Could another hot start be on the horizon?
Dayton is a dark-horse at-large bracketology contender this season with its transfer additions and injury woes throughout the Atlantic 10. The Flyers need to impress in order to make that happen, but they will face at least four preseason KenPom top-100 opponents prior to conference play.
The ESPN Events Invitational is their first chance to add resume-building wins and they will start with a challenge vs. Miami in the opening round before facing either Kansas or North Texas in the second round. A matchup with one of Alabama, Iona, Belmont or Drake is also on the slate for the event.
Dayton will have a pair of likely wins following the MTE, but they then return to tough competition again. Three straight matchups against SMU (away), Virginia Tech (home) and Mississippi (away) loom between Dec. 8-18. The Atlantic 10 features some resume-building opportunities but not many. Taking advantage of these early chances will be pivotal.
Arizona is an overlooked team coming into this year. New head coach Tommy Lloyd carries a tremendous reputation and he has an intriguing collection of international talents to work with this season, including two sophomore stars in Bennedict Mathurin and Azuolas Tubelis. The Wildcats’ pre-conference schedule features several opportunities to prove they belong in the Top 25 after being snubbed in the preseason.
Arizona’s first resume-building opportunity comes in its opening game of the Roman Main event on Nov. 19. The Wildcats will face NCAA Tournament hopeful Wichita State in that game, and then face either Michigan or UNLV two days later. If the Wildcats can snag a matchup with the Wolverines, that could be a headlining game for the national audience and a major bracketology chance.
A home matchup with Wyoming looms on Dec. 8 as a possible trap game. The Cowboys feature quite a bit of talent and the Wildcats will face them just three days before traveling to Champaign to take on nationally ranked Illinois. Coach Lloyd finishes his nonconference schedule with a road game against Tennesee, another valuable opportunity.
UCF Golden Knights
UCF is the dark horse in the AAC this season. Houston and Memphis are the clear favorites in the league but watch for the Knights to swoop into the bubble conversation if things break the right way. Getting off to a hot start is essential in competing for an at-large bid. They are already 1-0 with a win over Robert Morris, and their schedule heats up quickly. UCF faces a high-major opponent in Miami in just the second game of the year.
Head coach Johnny Dawkins’ team is not participating in a headlining MTE this year but there are plenty of matchups to enjoy from a bracketology standpoint. The Knights face Oklahoma (home), Auburn (away), Florida State (neutral) and Michigan (home) before AAC season. That last game against the Wolverines is a massive opportunity in front of their crowd.